Financing Broadband: Mutual Aid in the Time of COVID-19

Originally published April 18, 2020


The silver lining in the cloud of our current pandemic with COVID-19 is the opportunity to challenge previous assumptions that have inhibited our ability to pivot and innovate. It is time to address fundamental structural problems that we have accepted in our society. There are many things that we can do differently going forward. I will focus on a problem that has become particularly salient during this crisis, the problem of unequal access to Broadband Internet. For years surveys have shown that Comcast is the most hated company in America. Yet, no matter how much people complain about cost and service, we keep sending them more and more money every month. We will show that there is a better way to get good, reliable internet service at a fraction of the cost and that it is possible to provide internet service to everyone no matter their income.

As we are staying at home to Flatten the Curve and halt the spread of the virus, a spotlight has been shone on the inequality in our society and that this inequality is not based in any sense of justice or fairness. Many jobs performed by people in expensive suits are not being done now and a lot of us have not noticed the difference. On the other hand, we have started to realize how necessary the work of our “essential workers” is. And yet, they are often very low paid, especially our food industry workers.  Maybe our system of compensation is both unfair and harmful. 

We have also realized that much or all of the work that was thought to require seeing the back of someone’s head in a cubicle, can be done from home. Those of us with good Internet access are able to do so. Those who don’t have good access cannot continue to do their work from home. Children who are not going to school are able to continue to learn online if they live in a household that is connected and where they have access to a computer. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to pay for the Internet or they may live in areas where there is no Internet service at all. Those workers cannot work and those children cannot participate in school work, falling behind every day that their school is closed.

How the US Fell Behind in Internet Access

The video below is now 7 years old but it addresses the essential problems with how we have approached Internet access. It features Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation, and author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.” I had the privilege of meeting Susan Crawford in 2007 when she was teaching at the University of Michigan Law School and I was on the Cable Commission of Ann Arbor City Council. At that time she told me how law professors argued with her about why we should need faster Internet.

Costs for Local Internet Choice

In response to COVID-19 the Federal Government is making trillions of dollars available to corporations with very little knowledge of exactly how that money will be spent. Big corporations have fooled us into paying exorbitant monthly bills for Internet access and their monopolistic practices have prevented us from having choices. This is just one example of the fallacies of the “free market” that I will continue to explore in future posts.

Free Internet is Like a Sidewalk

When was the last time you were charged to walk across a sidewalk to gain access to a building? Our society pays for sidewalks and all of us benefit from it. If sidewalks were private, the bureaucracy to charge us for their use and the record-keeping of who has paid and who is the debtor would add significant cost to providing sidewalks to society. The internet is similar to a sidewalk. It gives us access to information. I believe that access to information is absolutely essential in modern society and that it therefore should be open to everyone.

The Real Cost of Access

Unbeknownst to many of us, it is quite possible to expand access to the Internet quickly and cheaply. As Joanne Hovis says in “The Broadband Lifeline in a Pandemic: How Your Community Can Quickly Connect the Unconnected”,

But it’s important to know that you have options to deploy new facilities – options that can be exercised in days or weeks, not years. Earlier, we shared some ideas for using fiber, mmWave, and Wi-Fi to get services to the unserved. Today, we’d like to share more detail for how you can connect 1,000 or more households in a town or city for less than $500,000, possibly considerably less

Coalition for Local Internet Choice

A Low-Cost Mesh Network

NYCmesh has been around for a number of years. After the threats to Network Neutrality with the advent of the Trump Administration they had a spike in growth as the number of installations they performed around New York City increased dramatically with a troop of volunteers. A press release by the NYC Housing Authority describes how NYC Mesh addressed the digital divide and health issues with a project for public housing residents.

BlocPower has also partnered with NYC Mesh to provide a free WiFi network to NYCHA residents. Real-time data allows BlocPower’s analytics package to identify how to comprehensively improve the interrelated challenges of lack of heating, indoor air pollution, and data connectivity for NYCHA communities.

The founder Brian Hall has written an excellent post about how to start your own Community Network.

Where to Get the Money

First, not all projects need massive amounts of investment. The mesh project in New York City, described above, has gotten small grants and is based on a volunteer workforce. Members of the mesh network are asked to voluntarily donate $20 a month. Not everyone does, but enough people do to both sustain and grow the network. For larger projects, municipalities that are constantly making decisions on million-dollar projects, need to reassess their priorities. Around 2007, when I was on Ann Arbor City Council, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer withdrew their presence from Ann Arbor. They had previously been given large tax incentives to locate in Ann Arbor. Thus, we learned that tax incentives to draw a particular business into a community don’t necessarily keep that business in the community. However, investing in infrastructure to attract businesses retains its value even after the loss of a particular business. Whatever reason a given business has for leaving a community, the infrastructure remains to draw new businesses that will replace them. It makes sense for municipalities to invest in a robust Internet infrastructure. Internet access is a must for every worker in the contemporary work environment. It ensures that the best and brightest of the next generation have access to opportunity and it attracts businesses to your community as part of a modern infrastructure.

The primary thrust of this post has been to focus on how our old assumptions of how things work have prevented us from solving problems. I have used Broadband Internet as an example of how our assumption that the Internet is expensive to provide has prevented us from exploring alternatives to monopolistic practices. During the recent presidential primary when things like Medicare for all were proposed, media pundits constantly ask the question “How are you going to pay for that?” No sooner was the primary basically over, when suddenly trillions of dollars have been made available to corporations to help mitigate the economic fallout of the COVID-19  crisis. In future posts, I intend to address why money is not an actual physical thing and only real to the extent that we think it is so.

Related Articles

Indigenous communities: DIY Internet

The infrastructure of the Internet should not be owned by a few companies.

For thousands of years, Commoning principles have enabled communities to share water from a stream. As we are now streaming educational services to children via the Internet, shouldn’t we learn how to better share that stream? There are many examples like the article linked below, where Indigenous communities simply took control . . .